Question: When is $23.95 not $23.95?
Answer: When it shows up as the advertised price for basic cable service in western Howard County.
Mid-Atlantic, the cable provider in the western half of the county, began excluding the standard 5 percent franchise fee from its advertised charges last fall. The franchise fee is the amount Howard County charges cable companies to do business in the county.
Even though Mid-Atlantic has deducted the fee from its published rates, the fee still applies, a fact that shows up in fine print at the bottom of the company's rate card. The net effect is that basic service, which is advertised at $23.95 a month, really ,, costs $25.15.
The fee is applicable to 20 products and services that appear on the company's rate card, which is basically an advertising placard that lists services and fees.
County officials are concerned because, depending on how many services a customer selects, the 5 percent fee easily could boost the customer's bill by several dollars a month.
The upshot, said Jim O'Connor, Howard County's cable administrator, is that some county residents may be signing up for cable service thinking their monthly fees will be lower than they turn out to be.
"They're asking you to do the calculations in your head. It forces people to get out a calculator to try to figure out what their bill is going to be," said Mr. O'Connor, whose office in the county government is responsible for keeping tabs on Mid-Atlantic.
He has proposed a bill before the Howard County Council that would require cable operators to list their charges clearly on all printed material, including rate cards, brochures and ads.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Monday at 8 p.m. in the council's meeting room in the George Howard building, 3430 Courthouse Drive in Ellicott City.
The franchise fee isn't new. Every cable operator has to give a percentage of its gross receipts to the locality where it operates.
What is new is that a number of cable operators, including Mid-Atlantic, recently began listing the fee as a separate item in monthly bills, a move aimed at making customers aware of the costs of providing cable services.
But Mr. O'Connor said Mid-Atlantic has gone too far in carrying that campaign over into its advertising literature. He said he has asked Mid-Atlantic several times to discontinue the practice and to advertise its rates more clearly.
Mid-Atlantic has resisted, contending that consumers need to be educated about the cost of doing business.
"My position is that the rate card says 5 percent is added to everything, because that's what we owe the county," said John Norcutt, president of Mid-Atlantic.
If Mr. O'Connor's bill becomes law, Mid-Atlantic will revert to its old way of advertising -- listing services with the 5 percent fee included.